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The Ovary of Eve: Egg and Sperm and Preformation

The Ovary of Eve: Egg and Sperm and Preformation

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2.33

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Published by University of Chicago Press an imprint of UChicagoPress
The Ovary of Eve is a rich and often hilarious account of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century efforts to understand conception. In these early years of the Scientific Revolution, the most intelligent men and women of the day struggled to come to terms with the origins of new life, and one theory—preformation—sparked an intensely heated debate that continued for over a hundred years. Clara Pinto-Correia traces the history of this much maligned theory through the cultural capitals of Europe.

"The most wonderfully eye-opening, or imagination-opening book, as amusing as it is instructive."—Mary Warnock, London Observer

"[A] fascinating and often humorous study of a reproductive theory that flourished from the mid-17th century to the mid-18th century."—Nina C. Ayoub, Chronicle of Higher Education

"More than just a good story, The Ovary of Eve is an object lesson about the history of science: Don't trust it. . . . Pinto-Correia says she wants to tell the story of history's losers. In doing so, she makes defeat sound more appealing than victory."—Emily Eakin, Nation.

"A sparkling history of preformation as it once affected every facet of European culture."—Robert Taylor, Boston Globe
The Ovary of Eve is a rich and often hilarious account of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century efforts to understand conception. In these early years of the Scientific Revolution, the most intelligent men and women of the day struggled to come to terms with the origins of new life, and one theory—preformation—sparked an intensely heated debate that continued for over a hundred years. Clara Pinto-Correia traces the history of this much maligned theory through the cultural capitals of Europe.

"The most wonderfully eye-opening, or imagination-opening book, as amusing as it is instructive."—Mary Warnock, London Observer

"[A] fascinating and often humorous study of a reproductive theory that flourished from the mid-17th century to the mid-18th century."—Nina C. Ayoub, Chronicle of Higher Education

"More than just a good story, The Ovary of Eve is an object lesson about the history of science: Don't trust it. . . . Pinto-Correia says she wants to tell the story of history's losers. In doing so, she makes defeat sound more appealing than victory."—Emily Eakin, Nation.

"A sparkling history of preformation as it once affected every facet of European culture."—Robert Taylor, Boston Globe

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Publish date: Dec 1, 2007
Added to Scribd: Dec 03, 2009
Copyright:Traditional Copyright: All rights reservedISBN:9780226669502
List Price: $26.00

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12/20/2014

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9780226669502

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Publishers Weekly reviewed this
Modern-day biological marvels like miniature cameras that capture the moment of conception lull us into a false sense of knowledge; the final answer to the question of where we come from is still up for grabs. Scholars of the 17th century, operating in the context of Descartes's mechanistic world view, proposed the explanation of preformation. Unlike epigenesists, who uniformly contended that an undifferentiated egg went through a process of structural elaboration, preformationists were divided into the "spermists," who thought that Adam's sperm contained Russian doll-like homunculi perfectly coiled and ready to spring forth, and "ovists," who supposed the origin was in Eve's eggs. Pinto-Correia, a biology professor in Lisbon who has published poetry and novels as well as nonfiction, has written a wondrous if enigmatic trip through the history of science. In her nonchronological history of the doctrine of preformation, she threads a maze of global myth and religion, covering diverse topics as mnemonics and the work of 13th-century Catalan philosopher Ramon Llull or the magical Golem of Rabbi Jehuad the Hasid. Given the breadth of her learning, Pinto-Correia stays amazingly focused, even when the discussion jumps forward to modern-day misconceptions like the dinosaur eggs in Jurassic Park. Readers accustomed to books organized around brief "information bytes" may become impatient with this one. If the epilogue seems outmoded in light of the recent success of cloning by nuclear transfer technology, reading Pinto-Correia is still a delightful intellectual exercise, and her audience will cut across the usual academic borders. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

1997-10-27, Publishers Weekly
Publishers Weekly reviewed this
Modern-day biological marvels like miniature cameras that capture the moment of conception lull us into a false sense of knowledge; the final answer to the question of where we come from is still up for grabs. Scholars of the 17th century, operating in the context of Descartes's mechanistic world view, proposed the explanation of preformation. Unlike epigenesists, who uniformly contended that an undifferentiated egg went through a process of structural elaboration, preformationists were divided into the "spermists," who thought that Adam's sperm contained Russian doll-like homunculi perfectly coiled and ready to spring forth, and "ovists," who supposed the origin was in Eve's eggs. Pinto-Correia, a biology professor in Lisbon who has published poetry and novels as well as nonfiction, has written a wondrous if enigmatic trip through the history of science. In her nonchronological history of the doctrine of preformation, she threads a maze of global myth and religion, covering diverse topics as mnemonics and the work of 13th-century Catalan philosopher Ramon Llull or the magical Golem of Rabbi Jehuad the Hasid. Given the breadth of her learning, Pinto-Correia stays amazingly focused, even when the discussion jumps forward to modern-day misconceptions like the dinosaur eggs in Jurassic Park. Readers accustomed to books organized around brief "information bytes" may become impatient with this one. If the epilogue seems outmoded in light of the recent success of cloning by nuclear transfer technology, reading Pinto-Correia is still a delightful intellectual exercise, and her audience will cut across the usual academic borders. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

1997-10-27, Publishers Weekly
juglicerr reviewed this
Rated 2/5
Pinto-Correia is a professor of Developmental Biology at Universidade Lusofona, in Lisbon, Portugal. The preformation theory of development flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. The discovery of "animicules", the ubiquitous microscopic creatures that surround us, lead to the conclusion that living things could be infinitely small. The idea then arose that the bodies, or at least parts of bodies, of all generations were contained in the first parent, either Adam or Eve. The usual image is of the Russian dolls that are contained one inside the other.This story is usually recounted, in brief, as a tale of losers who believed a silly idea. Here Pinto-Correia attempts to tell it without such post-facto judgments. She organizes the material by basic ideas, e.g., ovists, who believed that all future people were contained in the ovary of Eve, spermists, who believed that they were in Adam's testes.I was disappointed with this book, although I am willing to concede that I simply may not be a receptive audience. I thought that the text consisted too much of quotations and required more explication. At one point, it seemed to me that the quote seemed to allowing for trans-species reincarnation (p.83), which would certainly be surprising in Christian Europe, but I am not sure that I understood what the author was saying. As a modern reader, I was also wondering how the thinkers explained the similarity of children to the parent from whom they were not actually descended, since they were preformed in one or the other. If all children were contained preformed in the ova of Eve, why would they resemble Adam or any other father? And how does one explain hybrids like mules? This is mentioned only briefly here and there. It isn't clear, was this not dealt with in any detail by the preformists, or is this an artifact of the author's organization?On the other hand, Pinto-Correia devotes 47 pages to the issue of monstrosities, covering all sorts of marginally related topics: mythical hybrids, birth defects, symbolic monsters, exotic animals, natural oddities, etc., with a side trip about regeneration, only to conclude that actually, the issue was not an important one. I emphatically agree with her comment partway through: "We must admit at this point the possibility of having wasted tens of pages on the analysis of a paper tiger." And yet she continues for another 16 pages. The entire point of the chapter is that while birth defects seem to later writers to be a problem for preformationists, it wasn't an issue at the time. With examples, this was worth possibly 2-3 pages.All in all, It seems like great labor to little purpose. When she stays on point, I don't find the story of preformationism particularly interesting or enlightening, When she goes off point, her little snippets, some of which are for no apparent reason banished to the notes, simply drag out the agony without being developed enough to be interesting in their own right, although some readers may find them charming. If all the digressions were omitted, this could be edited into a worthy magazine article.The book includes numerous illustrations, a bibliography and index.
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